March 31 - April 14
This Week: Kerry Jet-Sets, Morsi's days are numbered, Kim Jong-Un's missiles are prepped, and Syria gets flak jackets.
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for March 31 - April 14!
Note: This Dispatch was written on Sunday. Developments on Monday are not covered.
I missed a couple weeks for a couple reasons, but the Dispatch is back. I’m going to move writing back to Sunday - it’s too easy to slip during the week. Also, I’m now self-hosted again - tumblr gave me a few issues - so do let me know if you see any problems. Note the RSS feed has changed (same URL, but it’s been regenerated), so there may be some oddness there, and some associated weirdness with Mailchimp. That said, if you’re reading this in an RSS reader or an email, it’s obviously working well enough.
I also have a new post up on Bitcoin on my other blog - if you’re interested in the crypto-currency, you can read my take here:
So, let’s get to it!
Venezuelans went to the polls today to decide who will succeed Hugo Chavez, who passed away last month. Pre-election polls had Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s vice president and chosen successor, ahead of opposition leader Henry Capriles by more than 10% leading into the elections.
Capriles and the opposition might be dodging a bullet here. Venezuela’s economy is in poor shape, and it’s not heading towards recovery. If Maduro wins, he will have to consolidate his hold over the fractious groups that make up Chavez’s movement; clean out the rampant corruption that threatens the movement’s support among the people; deal with soaring crime rates, rampant inflation, and falling oil production; and figure out how to maintain Venezuela’s role in the region without its charismatic leader. It’s going to be a rough term regardless of who’s in office, but it would have been a death knell for the opposition to take power for the first time in 14 years in light of all the challenges Venezuela faces. As is, unless Maduro is a much, much better politician than he seems to be, I think he and the rest of the Chavistas are in for a nasty few years. I’ll be very interested to see if the movement holds together in light of the extremely serious challenges it faces.
Update: Preliminary results indicate Maduro won by a mere 51-49.
The head of al-Qaeda in Iraq announced a merger with the al-Nusra Front, a prominent Syrian opposition group, on Tuesday. The al-Nusra Front followed up a day later by publicly pledging its allegiance to al-Qaeda, though it backed off from the talk of an actual merger. The group had been blacklisted by the US State Department for its ties to al-Qaeda in December. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Syrian opposition, pledging more US support for the opposition, though that aid is still restricted to nonlethal items like flak jackets and communication equipment.
The US has been reluctant to send weapons to the Syrian opposition in fear that they could wind up in the hands of groups like the al-Nusra Front. It’s a bit late for that, though: the al-Nusra front is already by far the best armed and trained group in the opposition thanks to its ties to the Iraqi insurgency. Because of that, the US’s caution, while understandable, has spawned exactly the situation it sought to avoid: al-Nusra is the best armed group in the opposition, which means it is the most capable and successful of the rebel groups. Its power and prominence is directly derived from its ample support by outsiders, while the secular groups the West prefers are languishing for want of weapons. As John McCain put it, “I can understand why a fighter in Syria is not comforted by the fact that he might get a flak jacket, especially when he’s being pounded with Scud missiles and air power.” We’re not making friends by refusing to arm the people we ostensibly support in Syria, we’re breeding resentment and increasing the comparative strength of the groups we don’t want assuming power. In the meantime, any semblance of secular Syrian opposition bleeds and dies for want of proper support.
After more than a month of bluster and aggressive moves, including the closure of an industrial complex shared with the South, North Korea moved a pair of medium-range missiles into place on the east coast of the country, indicating it plans to attempt a missile test. South Korea and the US have warned the country not to go forward, while Japan has threatened to shoot the missile down. The most likely date for the launch would be April 15, the birthday of Kim il-Sung, the first leader of North Korea.
An assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence service, made the rounds this week. The previously-classified assessment declared with “moderate confidence” that the DPRK could now make a nuclear missile small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, while cautioning the device’s reliability would be “low.”
Finally, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited China in hopes of eliciting that nation’s support in finding a solution to the tensions on the peninsula. The meeting was apparently productive, with China indicating support for both denuclearization and continued peace talks.
The DIA report would be alarming, but the DIA has a bad track record assessing military capabilities - other intelligence agencies disagree with their assessment of the DPRK’s capabilities, and I do as well. North Korea so far has managed to test two quasi-successful nuclear devices underground and has managed to successfully launch one of its ballistic missiles - it’s highly unlikely they could successfully launch a nuclear ballistic missile right now.
The most likely resolution to the current crisis is a missile launch on the 15th. As long as the North doesn’t do anything stupid, like launch it at Japan or South Korea, that’ll probably be the end of the current crisis. That said, if the North miscalculates and provokes either country into shooting down the missile, the crisis could easily escalate. Neither South Korea nor Japan are in any mood to let the North slide right now.
Kerry’s trip to China looks successful — the Chinese seem to be losing patience with the North after repeated snubs by Kim Jong Un. I’m guessing Kerry also pointed out how much US military hardware was being moved into the region because of the recent tensions - far from buffering China against the West, the DPRK has done wonders for improving ties between the US and South Korea and Japan. The last thing China wants now is a war sending a wave of refugees across the North’s border.
It’s been a rough month for Egypt’s embattled president Mohammed Morsi. After riots forced the police from Port Said, the military has taken over the city, sparking calls for military intervention elsewhere in the country. In Cairo, clashes between supporters and opponents of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood last month gave way to far more disturbing sectarian clashes between Coptic Christians and Islamists, which left several dead. The country’s suffering economy is taking its toll as well - in late March, the government announced it would start rationing subsidized bread, a further stress on the nation’s poor, and chronic food and fuel shortages and regular blackouts plague the country.
I’m frankly not sure what the path ahead looks like for Egypt. Morsi is a failed leader. He was never able to walk the line between his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest of Egyptian society well enough to shore up his support; he failed to reform the police and the interior ministry; when pressed, he turned the police against the protestors again; he’s lost control of at least one major Egyptian city; the economy has spiraled even further down; and the military is starting to play a prominent role in internal politics again. At this rate, there’s no way Morsi survives as Egypt’s leader - if he were half the politician he’d need to be to fix this mess, he wouldn’t be in it in the first place.
As to the rest of the country, the basic problem is that the country’s revolution didn’t actually challenge the country’s power structures. Both the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood are factions from the Mubarak era, the judiciary is still stacked with Mubarak’s judges, the police and the interior ministry are still designed as tools of repression, not security or safety, and nobody’s managed to clean out the widespread corruption or interest groups that built up over 40 years of autocratic rule. In the two years since Mubarak was overthrown, the country has not had a genuinely representative government: parliament was dissolved almost instantly, Morsi was the product of intense back-room dealings, and the current “constitution” was a rough hatchet job on the Mubarak-era version.
I don’t know what the road between here and a functioning Egyptian government looks like. The most likely event now is that the situation on the street continues to deteriorate until the military removes Morsi from power. At that point, if the leaders of the military are smart, they’ll take the time to ensure a transition to a genuinely representative government, one that has some legitimacy to the protestors in Cairo, Port Said, and the rest of Egypt. Given how badly the transition was screwed up last time, though, I don’t have a lot of confidence.
Thanks for joining me! Hopefully the Dispatch will be back on a more regular schedule in the next couple weeks.